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Cholera fears as humanitarian crisis looms for C. Africa capital

A young girl carries water at an internally displaced person camp (IDP) near the airport of Bangui on December 12, 2013
A young girl carries water at an internally displaced person camp (IDP) near the airport of Bangui on December 12, 2013

Aid workers warned Thursday of a looming humanitarian crisis in the Central African capital as tens of thousands of residents desperate for protection slept rough near a French army base in Bangui.

Sectarian unrest that claimed at least 400 lives in Bangui last week has abated after the start of a French-backed military intervention, but many traumatised residents still feared returning to their homes as sporadic acts of violence continued to take place.

One man riding his motorbike in the mainly Muslim PK-5 district of the capital was lynched Thursday by a crowd that rose up in fury after the bodies of six people killed by Christians, including a child, were brought to the local mosque.

"We're going to wash blood away with blood," one man in the crowd shouted out.

Central African humanitarian crisis
Map of Bangui locating IDPs and troops

The resource-rich but impoverished majority Christian country was plunged into chaos following a March coup by mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, prompting France to deploy 1,600 troops to its former colony last week to prop up an African peacekeeping force and start disarming fighters.

But as some districts of the capital returned to a semblance of normality, with people venturing out onto the streets, the focus shifted to conditions in insalubrious makeshift camps, with humanitarian workers raising fears of cholera and other diseases spreading.

Some 100,000 of Bangui's estimated 800,000 residents had been displaced within the city, workers said, with many desperate for protection living rough near a French military base and in other areas considered safer.

At least 10,000 people were sheltering every day around the city's international airport, where French soldiers have maintained a base since 2002, and that number doubled or tripled at night when residents feared attacks even more.

Women cook in a refugee camp near the airport in Bangui after fleeing violence on December 11, 2013
Women cook in a refugee camp near the airport in Bangui after fleeing violence on December 11, 2013

A few tents had been put up, some people had made makeshift shelters with plastic bags, but most had no protection at all.

"We are seeking refuge but there is no water and no food," said a man who had fled from the neighbouring Boeing district where the former Seleka rebels had gone on a rampage, killing and looting with impunity.

Aid officials fear that epidemics could spread easily. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has set up a mobile clinic capable of carrying out up to 300 consultations a day.

There are only two places to access water at the camp near the airport and both have been set up by the Red Cross.

Acute food, water crisis

To make matters worse, UN aid agencies have not delivered any food supplies to the camp for the last week, a humanitarian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

MSF called on the United Nations to do more to address the crisis.

A child sits next to barbed wire as people stand in a refugee camp near the airport in Bangui after fleeing violence on December 11, 2013
A child sits next to barbed wire as people stand in a refugee camp near the airport in Bangui after fleeing violence on December 11, 2013

"Despite its significant efforts, MSF -- and the few NGOs present -- cannot cover all needs. UN agencies must now bring a solid and concrete response," said Bart Janssens, MSF head of operations.

In Bossangoa in the northwest of the country, tens of thousands also fled to camps, fearing a repeat of violence that has largely pitted Christians against Muslims.

NGO Action Against Hunger said one camp it operates only had one water source, adding it was trying to take care of the rubbish and wastewater as best it could, and building latrines.

France sent in troops to CAR in what President Francois Hollande said was a bid to prevent "carnage" and reinforce the 2,600-strong African force already present.

On Thursday, a first batch of troops from Burundi flew to Bangui to further prop up the so-called MISCA force.

Although other Western countries have praised France for taking the lead, none has pitched in with additional troops on the ground.

Former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who founded MSF, denounced other European countries for not following Paris's lead.

"One thing troubles me greatly and that is the absence of Europe," he said, accusing leaders of other European countries of "scandalous cowardice".

Air France meanwhile resumed flights from Paris to Bangui on Thursday, after having halted them on Tuesday following the death of two French soldiers in a fierce gunbattle the previous day.

The relatively calm situation in Bangui was in sharp contrast to Monday and Tuesday, when rampaging locals pillaged shops owned by Muslims. The scale of any violence outside the capital remains unclear.

French officers say the vast majority of the armed men who had brought terror to Bangui were disarmed within 24 hours of the intervention force arriving.

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